Craig Hill: Association grows as it works to keep the PCT wild

A view of the Cascades from the Pacific Crest Trail near Chinook Pass.
A view of the Cascades from the Pacific Crest Trail near Chinook Pass. chill@thenewstribune.com

Much has changed in the 15 years since Liz Bergeron took over as executive director of the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

In 2001, Bergeron represented a third of the organization’s staff and she often had to explain what the trail was when she spoke to people.

Today, the PCT is a celebrity — one of the most famous trails in North America — and the association is on the verge of hiring its 20th employee.

“It’s night and day,” Bergeron said by phone earlier this week from Sacramento, California, home of the association that aims to protect and promote the trail. “Even six years ago I’d go to a regional conference and say, ‘I’m Liz with the Pacific Crest Trail Association’ and people would say ‘What’s the Pacific Coast Trail?’ 

The trail winds 2,650 miles between the Mexican and Canadian borders. It passes through California, Oregon and Washington. From the South Sound, hikers can be on the trail in about an hour. The popularity of the trail has skyrocketed in recent years thanks to Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 book “Wild” and the 2014 movie of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon.

“Wild” has meant more trail use and more support for the association. However, Bergeron says most who give to the trail have ideas on how they want their contributions spent. Funding a director of communication didn’t sound like an interesting project to some.

“It’s hard to find funding for those types of positions,” Bergeron said, “because everyone wants to fund trail work and they want to fund opening the trails for hikers. Of course, everything we do, that’s why we do it.”

This means, effectively, if you walk the entire trail there are places where you are trespassing.

Liz Bergeron, PCTA Executive Director

The association approached the Vancouver, Washington-based M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust asking for help.

“It resonated with us because the trail goes right through Oregon and Washington and impacts the entire region,” said David Austin, program director for the trust.

Austin said the trust recognized the idea of hiring a communication specialist as a good idea. “A really good storyteller can inspire a lot of people,” Austin said.

In October, the trust awarded a $258,000 grant to underwrite the communication position for three years. The hope is that within that time the position will become self-sustaining, Austin said.

The organization has been getting by without a communication director despite advice from other organizations that it should be a priority.

The new hire could be named as soon as this week.

“In order for us to thrive as an organization, it is continual recruitment of volunteers, members and supporters,” Bergeron said. “… We have to have good outreach and communication. We have to continually tell our story in order to recruit supporters.”

The first duty of the new employee will be to review all of the organizations communication (website, brochures, social media, etc.) and interpret what impression the organization is giving to the world.

The new employee will also start chipping away at misconceptions.

“One of our biggest challenges right now is overcoming this perception that the trail is complete and is protected,” Bergeron said. “About 10 percent of the trail is on private property and in some places there is no easement. … This means, effectively, if you walk the entire trail there are places where you are trespassing.”

In some places the easement for the trail is 8 feet, meaning structures can be built next to the trail.

“We want the trail to be as much of a wilderness experience as possible,” Bergeron said. “That escape from everyday life. A place where you can go to experience quiet and solitude. We need to protect that by purchasing that land.”

Some of those places are located on Snoqualmie and Stevens passes. Fortunately, Bergeron said, a few parcels at Snoqualmie Pass were purchased by the Nature Conservancy.

North of Stevens Pass ski area’s remodeled parking lot, there is a piece of property with no easement for the trail. The association now has a signed agreement to purchase the land. Bergeron says the association plans to transfer the land to the U.S. Forest Service by November 2017.

The association’s vision is to protect more than the trail. It wants to safeguard the experience by protecting a mile-wide corridor for the trail. “That would vary depending on the view,” Bergeron said.

“If you are out there looking for solitude and you are walking through a bunch of houses, it changes the experience.”

With thousands of trailheads, there is no accurate count of how many people use the trail each year. However, those traveling more than 500 miles must secure a permit. The association awarded 4,500 permits this year and 2,800 were for people attempting a thru-hike (hike the entire trail).

“The trail is an invitation into nature,” said Bergeron, who has section-hiked about half the trail. “It is a refuge from industrialized civilization. That’s what we are working to protect.”

In Southern California, a section of the trail travels through a neighborhood. The trail was there first but it traveled over private land and a housing development sprouted up along the route. Now organizations are looking to reroute the trail.

“If we don’t address these places along the trail it will eventually get nibbled away at,” Bergeron said.

It’s a message the association wants to spread among its growing legion of fans and beyond. No pressure, new communication director.

“I see this position as a missing link,” Bergeron said. “I think it will strengthen everything we do. That’s how excited I am.”